By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A stretch of six games in 13 days ended Wednesday night for the University of Virginia men’s basketball team. That schedule would have taxed many teams, but 12th-ranked UVA was still full of energy in the final minutes at John Paul Jones Arena.
Given Virginia’s depth, perhaps that wasn’t surprising. Through six games, nine Cavaliers are averaging at least 10.8 minutes per game, and seven of them are averaging 5.7 points or more. And those seven don’t include sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins, who leads the Wahoos (5-1) in blocked shots and is fourth on the team in rebounds (3.3 per game).
“I think we have a number of guys that could start,” head coach Tony Bennett said after Virginia’s 80-54 victory over Lehigh, the preseason pick to win the Patriot League.
Against the Mountain Hawks, Bennett started redshirt freshman center Jack Salt, senior power forward Anthony Gill, sophomore swingman Marial Shayok, senior guard Malcolm Brogdon and junior guard London Perrantes. Salt did not score, but his fellow starters, led by the 6-5 Brogdon, combined for 50 points.
Virginia’s reserves distinguished themselves, too, in the team’s first game at JPJ in nearly two weeks.
“I thought our bench gave us life,” Bennett said.
Redshirt sophomore guard Darius Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee, matched his high as a Cavalier with 12 points, and senior center Mike Tobey contributed eight points and five rebounds. Wilkins chipped in six points, five boards, one assist and one block.
During one sequence late in the first half, the 6-7 Wilkins rejected a shot by 6-9, 225-pound Jesse Chuku, then raced the court and caught a long pass from Thompson for a transition layup, drawing an appreciative roar from the crowd of 14,220 at JPJ.
“I think our biggest strength this season, besides our defense, is our depth,” Brogdon said. “I think we have multiple guards that can step in and play as well as starters, and then I think we have bigs in the rotation that can really play and can really contribute as well.”
That depth means the starters “don’t have to play as many minutes at this time of year,” Gill said. “Right now, we’ve got guys coming in and out, and we’re not losing a beat.”
Thompson said: “It just shows you how deep we are as a team. If someone’s struggling, we have somebody else that can replace him right away.”
The Cavaliers started slowly Wednesday night. With 4:10 left in the first half, Lehigh (0-5) led 24-23. But Perrantes, who had a game-high eight assists, fed the 7-0 Tobey for a dunk, and the `Hoos were back on top to stay. They closed the half with a 12-4 run and led 35-28 at the break.
“We’re not a team that panics early on when we’re down in the first half,” Brogdon said. “We just try to get things going on defense.”
Virginia scored 10 of the first 12 points in the second half, and the outcome was never in doubt thereafter. Four players finished in double figures for the Cavaliers: Brogdon (23 points), Thompson (12), Shayok (11) and Gill (10). The right-handed Shayok showed no ill effects from his sprained right wrist, which was heavily taped. He made 4 of 5 shots from the floor.
“It’s kind of like pick your poison, because they had so many different options and so many different opportunities,” said Dr. Brett Reed, Lehigh’s head coach.
Tim Kempton, a 6-10 junior who’s the son of the former NBA player of the same name, scored 14 points for Lehigh, as did freshman guard Kyle Leufroy. But the Mountain Hawks were helpless against Brogdon’s onslaught.
“He’s really a pretty special player,” Reed said, “because he made the game look so easy.”
An All-American in 2014-15, Brogdon played like one again Wednesday night. He hit 10 of 15 shots from the floor, including 3 of 5 from beyond the arc, and also had four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 29 minutes. He left the game with 5:42 remaining to a standing ovation.
“Malcolm had a nice pace about himself,” Bennett said. “You could see he was in a great rhythm offensively.”
That’s been the case most of the season for the team, too. After scoring as many as 80 points in only two games in 2014-15 — one of which went to double overtime — they’ve now done so five times this season.
“We have some scorers, and it’s so far, so good,” Bennett said.
“It’s nice to be able to score some points. I know it’ll continue to get more challenging, but as long as our defense stays tough, and we have the right kind of pace offensively — how hard we play, how fast — [that’s good].
“But there has to be a level of patience and poise with that. And then there’s times you’ve got to be aggressive. That’s the balance. When you find that, that’s when you get to the right places.”
Virginia won’t play again at JPJ until Dec. 5, when William & Mary visits for a 2 p.m. game. Next up for UVA is a trip to Ohio State for a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game.
In a game ESPN will televise, the Cavaliers meet the Buckeyes (2-2) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in Columbus.
“We’ll have Thanksgiving off and then prepare for Ohio State and understand obviously what that’s about,” Bennett said.